Monday, January 7, 2008

Michael Grade and the White Chocolate Cake

In last week’s Journal column, I inserted a postscript claiming I would shed 21lbs by Easter.

It was a private thought. Frankly, I rather hoped it would pass unnoticed. You know how New Year’s resolutions go: they sound impressive, then, after a while you fail and everyone forgets.

But not this year. How was I to know that another overweight Journal columnist would challenge my resolve and reputation?

Keith Hann wants a fight. He says we should donate £10 for each pound the other loses to a charity of the winner’s choosing.

The last time time I lost weight publicly was the result of one of those wagers you make late at night in a bar when you’re not thinking straight.

I was at a conference with Michael Grade, then boss of Channel Four, and BBC1 supremo Jonathan Powell. It must have been late because the three of us were complaining about the disastrous effect too many pints could have on middle-aged waistlines. It was clearly a topic that touched a nerve, because we kept ordering rounds to debate it further. As the clock struck two I heard Michael saying, “So we’re agreed. Six weeks to lose a stone, and whoever fails pays each of the others one hundred quid.”

I thought no more about it until the following week, when I had a call from Grade’s assistant.

“Michael’s organized the weigh-in tomorrow morning in the canteen. He’ll see you there at eight and asks if you could bring some scales.”

Imagine the bizarre scene. Three executives in suits, one clutching a set of bathroom scales, each wondering if the other two are really serious. When Jonathan and I arrived, Michael had already ordered us full English breakfasts, with double fried bread.

“Shouldn’t we do the weigh-in first?” I suggested.

“Don’t be an idiot, these sausages must weigh half a pound each. Eat.”

So after the fry-up, as the canteen began filling with bemused staff, we stood in the middle of the room, took off our jackets, and, like championship boxers, berated each other as the scales groaned.

There’s nothing more boring than a man on a diet. I know that compulsive preoccupation and overwhelming feeling of anxiety which causes every conversation to begin: “Lost another pound this morning”.

I decided on a guerilla campaign. I sent a large slice of white chocolate gateau to each of my competitor’s offices, with instructions to their assistants to present them at 4pm precisely. I then waited for the phone calls. Jonathan's was first.

“You bastard,” he screamed, and slammed down the phone.

But from Michael I heard nothing. So I decided to get some intelligence on how he was doing. I rang Bill Cotton, and he told me that Grade had been his lunch guest the previous Sunday. Bill gave me the entire menu, including the bread and butter pudding, of which Michael had seconds. I sent the menu to Michael with a calorific conversion.

“You may as well write out the cheque now”, I crowed.

But, as with most diets, once metabolism slows down, so does weight loss. As the deadline approached, I’m ashamed to admit I rang my Harley Street doctor. He prescribed a couple of hefty looking diuretics, to be taken the night before the weigh-out.

“Don’t expect to get much sleep”, he warned. He was right.

The following morning back in the canteen none of us had so much as a cup of coffee before stepping gingerly onto the scales. The whoops of victory could be heard for miles. As we celebrated with bacon sandwiches, Michael handed me a box – containing the untouched but now rancid chocolate cake.

Later he took me aside. “Tom, don’t tell Jonathan, but I did have a secret weapon. My doctor gave me a diuretic the night before. Sorry.”

So, Mr Hann, bring it on. I shall probably lose friends and dinner invites, but I look forward to your cheque on Easter Day. And a really big chocolate cake.

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